BANDA ACEH , Indonesia - Indonesia’s only province ruled by Islamic law went to the polls Monday to elect its powerful governor, testing a fragile peace following a 30-year war by separatist rebels.
The elections in Aceh were the second since the province suffered 170,000 fatalities in the Asian tsunami of 2004, and since the war against Indonesian rule ended in 2005, having claimed 15,000 lives. Voters cast their ballots for governor as well as 17 district heads and deputies, with results expected by April 15.
Irwandi Yusuf, the 51-year-old incumbent who was elected in December 2006, is seeking a second five-year term as governor. At the village of Ulee Lheue on the outskirts of the capital Banda Aceh , voters cast their ballots at the Baiturrahim Mosque, the only structure in the fishing community that survived the tsunami.
Maulidin, a 40-year-old ambulance attendant who like many Indonesians goes by one name, was among the first to cast his ballot after voting began.
“My vote is no secret. There was an earthquake at 5:00 am a few months ago, and only a few people were on the beach looking out to sea (for a possible tsunami). Irwandi was one of them. I was touched that he really cared about the people’s welfare,” he told AFP.
Only 415 people out of the community of 6,000 villagers survived the tsunami.
“We want a leader who will look after us,” said Bursiadi, a 38-year-old fisherman who lost 20 family members and was himself taken for dead until waking up in a body bag.
“The tsunami was the lowest point for us all and we want to put that behind,” he said.
Officials said the vote passed off peacefully, despite outbreaks of violence in the run-up to the polls amid tensions between former rebels.
“From our observations, the voting went smoothly, without any reports of violence and intimidation,” said Abdul Salam Poroh, chairman of the Aceh Independent Election Monitoring Committee, after polls closed at 2:00 pm (0700 GMT).
In Jakarta, national police spokesman Saud Usman Nasution said there had been been “no significant incidents” reported.
Alcohol is freely sold in the rest of Indonesia , the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, but it is banned in Aceh . In some of the province’s regions, women are forbidden from wearing tight trousers.
Gamblers and imbibers are publicly caned. Debate still churns in Aceh over whether adulterers should continue to be publicly flogged, or stoned to death.
“I want Islamic sharia in place, but peace is most important,” said Mariam, a 45-year old food vendor in Banda Aceh . “I had to stay indoors most times during the conflict. Now, I can sell food and walk around freely,” she added.
Yusuf, who backs sharia but has opposed stricter enforcement, is challenged by four other hopefuls.
Among them are Teungku Ahmad Tajuddin, a 49-year-old Islamic schoolteacher who wants stricter sharia laws but is not considered a serious contender, and 71-year-old Zaini Abdullah, who is backed by the powerful Aceh Party and is a former rebel like Yusuf himself.
“The election is clearly a competition between Irwandi... and the Aceh Party,” said Jakarta-based analyst Jan Lepeltak.
The elections could test a fragile peace following the decades-long insurgency.
Much of the election tension has centred around Yusuf, who like many other politicians had been a rebel with the now-defunct separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), and his feud with the Aceh Party which was created by GAM in 2008.
Divisions among the former GAM leaders have grown since the 2005 agreement with Indonesia that ended the war, with Yusuf saying he had survived an assassination attempt last month.
The Aceh Party, which dominates the regional parliament, has been bitterly opposed to Yusuf for running as an independent.
Authorities say that a series of fatal shootings and at least 57 cases of intimidation were reported in the run-up to the poll, many involving supporters of Yusuf and Abdullah, raising fears of unrest in the aftermath of the vote .
More than three million residents were eligible to vote at 9,786 polling stations, and candidates must garner more than 30 percent of the vote for an outright win.